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Overtraining Syndrome

In today’s fitness culture - it seems that everyone’s mantra is to “train hard, push until it hurts, no excuses”, etc. This mindset has its time and place, however I don’t think it is sustainable for anyone trying to build a healthy relationship with the gym.

Up until recently, I was also caught up in this “always training” lifestyle. If I missed a day at the gym - I would feel guilty, even though I knew my body needed rest. I made sure I trained twice as hard the next day or doubled up at MMA practice. Even though I was putting in the work, it became counterintuitive to my own health.

It became difficult to show up to the gym simply because my body always ached. I felt like I was always in a physically and mentally drained state. My mood never seemed to improve and I couldn’t remember the last time I felt 100% during training - or in life in general. I kept overloading my body with too much stimuli. Between working out everyday, waking up early, going to bed late and not eating enough - I started to pay the price. I developed symptoms of overtraining syndrome.

Sure, I knew that overtraining was a very possible thing, but to an extent. If you are not a certified personal trainer or anyone in the related exercise field - we can assume the general population is conditioned to believe that being sore is a good sign after exercising. This may be true, however it is not applicable to all cases. Exercising will almost always give you delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS for short. Depending on the intensity and specificity of your workout, this should only last 24-72 hours at most. After this period, your body should feel recovered and ready to go.

For myself on the other hand, it felt like my body was never recovering properly. Being a young and relatively healthy male, I knew something was wrong. I shouldn’t have felt like this, so I decided to do some research.

Did you know that overtraining for a period longer than 2 months can lead to severe physiological and psychological symptoms that will decrease performance and endorphin release? There are over 125 known symptoms that could possibly stem from overtraining syndrome. A few that I have experienced myself were persistent stiff muscles, constant washed out feeling, fatigue, increased irritability, sleep disturbances and decreased concentration.

So how do we differentiate between feeling the normal soreness that comes with training versus feeling the actual symptoms that come with a prolonged period of overtraining?

The top trainers and coaches in the world always mention these two principles in their methodizations. You shouldn’t feel completely wiped out after an intense training session. You should always feel like you can do more. If you have ever trained with me, I will always tell you to leave some gas in the tank. In addition, listen to your body. There are some days where you will feel sore and that is completely normal. However, if you are feeling completely fatigued and mentally drained, working out can actually be detrimental towards your body. If you have a planned intense workout, make sure you are physically and mentally prepared to do it.

Let’s say we are experiencing some symptoms associated with overtraining. There are protocols we can take to prevent and restore our bodies from this damaging state.

It really comes down to improving the quality of sleep, the lengthiness of recovery, eating an adequate amount of nutritious foods, hydrating properly and addressing unrelated fitness stressors.

To increase the quality of our sleep, we simply have to dive into uninterrupted REM (the most important sleep cycle stage) sleep for longer. There is no correct way to do this, however there are some things we can do to give us the best chance for improved sleep. First of all, the average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep per night. There are some people that believe that they can function off of less than 5 hours of sleep per night - which may be true, however you will never function optimally unless you can sleep for this long. Here are some tips for getting a better night’s rest.

  • Set a scheduled time to sleep and stick to it
  • Figure out how you can relax
    • Journaling
    • Setting task list for tomorrow
    • Turn off phone
    • Read
  • Drink SleepyTime Tea
  • Don’t lie in bed awake - do something until you feel tired
  • Avoid Caffeine late in the day

Another important factor is the lengthiness of recovery. It is imperative that we become very aware of when our bodies are recovered enough in order to perform adequately. This way we can get the most out of workout - meaning optimal force production, muscle recruitment and focus. So yes, we have to take days off from the gym. If you feel too eager to come back, try engaging in a lighter activity that induces active recovery. Active recovery exercises are lower impact designed which allows for a (hopefully) quicker flush of lactic acid through your body. Some examples are swimming, walking, jogging, yoga, etc. I will touch more on this in another post. The main idea here is to stay away from activities that put too much strain on your Central Nervous System (Lifting heavy, Volume heavy workouts, etc) before your body is fully rested.

Eating properly and drinking enough water are some more important tools we can use to train efficiently and recover properly. Eating properly consists of eating nutrient rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, etc. Make sure you are eating enough carbs if you are a very active person and also consuming adequate amounts of protein. I won’t touch a lot on macronutrients here, but they are very important. Fats also play a crucial role in stabilizing your hormones. You can read more in this blog post. Water is also equally important. A great rule of thumb for athletes is that they should consume an ounce of water per body weight per day. So if someone weighs 160 lbs, they should drink 160 oz or roughly 1.25 gallons of water. I can’t stress enough how important nutrient dense foods and water are for the body. Just get it in.

Lastly, we must learn how to address any unrelated fitness stressors that may compromise our recovery. This will mostly come from situations or activities that strain us mentally. Life is here, full of uncontrollable surprises which will inevitably cause us stress. The way we respond to these stresses can make or break us. I say this because too much stress can compromise the way our body reacts.

Too much stress can affect our respiratory, immune and musculoskeletal systems in a negative way. It can also induce hyperarousal - which leads to difficulty or remaining asleep. Some fixes we can work on to dealing with stress (I will touch in another blog) include:

  • Meditation
  • Mindset Training
  • Finding a Creative Outlet
  • Martial Arts
  • Sports
  • Hobbies

Long story short - take care of your body. You can’t beat yourself up every time you train and expect to come back 100%. Listen to yourself and recover properly. Your body will thank you for it every single time. This is how you structure and create a sustainable relationship with the gym.

References

Backes, T. P., & Fitzgerald, K. (2016). Fluid consumption, exercise, and cognitive performance. Biology of sport, 33(3), 291–296. doi:10.5604/20831862.1208485

Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep

Overreaching/Overtraining: More Is Not Always Better : ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/Fulltext/2015/03000/Overreaching_Overtraining___More_Is_Not_Always.4.aspx

Matozo, L. T., Tamagna, A., Al-Qureshi, H. A., Menetrier, A. R., & Varante, P. E. (2012). Http://iiav.org/ijav/content/volumes/17_2012_1469441332161031/vol_4/611_firstpage_1112881355217903.pdf. The International Journal of Acoustics and Vibration,17(4). doi:10.20855/ijav.2012.17.4310

Mika, A., Oleksy, Ł., Kielnar, R., Wodka-Natkaniec, E., Twardowska, M., Kamiński, K., & Małek, Z. (2016). Comparison of Two Different Modes of Active Recovery on Muscles Performance after Fatiguing Exercise in Mountain Canoeist and Football Players. PloS one, 11(10), e0164216. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164216

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